Ethics questions emerge about former Mississippi congressman’s telecom lobbying

Nick R. Brown Contributor
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When former Mississippi Congressman Charles “Chip” Pickering criticizes the proposed AT&T merger with T-Mobile, his words drip with conservative indignation and free-market rhetoric. But the evidence surrounding his life and work in recent years suggests that the onetime C Street Republican moved to K Street long ago.

Questions about Pickering’s ethical flexibility go back well into his tenure in Congress, but the most recent controversy began to simmer in 2008. It was then that Rep. Edward Markey, Democrat from Massachusetts, sought a Republican co-sponsor for his Internet Freedom Preservation Act. Republicans were already largely unified against net-neutrality regulations, so it came as a surprise when Pickering became a willing co-sponsor.

Pickering had worked on telecommunications policy previously, and had already announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election. So Markey saw in him the ideal co-sponsor and a chance to give his legislation the patina of bipartisanship. In the end Pickering, staunch free-market ideologue by day, was actually a moonlighting advocate of greater government control.

That sentiment has re-emerged with Pickering’s opposition to the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger, and with his strange alliance with left-wing “media reform” activists.

In the last half-decade Pickering appears to have been manipulated behind the closed doors of his Congressional office. He also seems to have provided special treatment to those providing him financial backing during his tenure and a post-Congressional lobbying job.

The fallout from Pickering’s selective ethics, and the lack of lobbying transparency that has followed him into the private sector, raise serious concerns. “Two of the most important principles of lobbying law are transparency and fairness,” Florida State University cyber-law professor Fey Jones explained to TheDC. “The public has a right to know the possible sources of influence. That’s why there are legal schemes for registration and disclosure.” (RELATED: Congress, companies and states chime in on AT&T/T-Mobile merger)

Those legal structures could prove troublesome for Pickering if his failure to disclose certain financial interests attracts the attention of the Department of Justice.

Questions emerge

Pickering filed divorce papers in Madison County, Miss., shortly after leaving Congress. An “alienation of affection” lawsuit his ex-wife filed one year later alleged that Pickering was essentially promised the Senate seat of the retiring Trent Lott. Pickering, according to the lawsuit, had been having an affair during his tenure in office with Elizabeth Creekmore-Byrd, a board member of Telapex, Inc.

Telapex’s political action committee has courted prominent net-neutrality supporters in past election cycles, most notably Reps. Byron Dorgan and Ed Markey. The Sunlight Foundation’s “Influence Explorer” notes that since 1999, Telapex’s PAC donated a combined $16,000 to Pickering, Dorgan, and Markey. During Chip Pickering’s entire tenure in office, the PAC steered $14,000 in direct contributions to his campaign coffers.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Pickering went to work for the lobbying firm Capitol Resources just months after leaving Congress, he lobbied on behalf of the Telapex-owned Cellular South. Public comments lodged with the Federal Communications Commission acknowledge his lobbying contact with that agency on Cellular South’s behalf.

The Creekmore family, based in Ridgeland, Miss., founded the rural wireless provider. Media observers caught the connection.

In 2009, The Daily Beast reported that Pickering chose a high paying job, and his mistress, over his own family and possibly even a Senate seat: “Pickering had taken his golden parachute from the mistress’ well-heeled and politically influential family, the Creekmores, going to work as a lobbyist for their Cellular South telecom company.”

Since 2009, Pickering has brought in roughly $1.4 million in telecom lobbying cash from Cellular South, Cbeyond, Inc., and other companies, according to the Lobbying Disclosure Act Database.

Leveraging power

There’s nothing new in Congressmen who ease through revolving doors on their way to lobbying careers. Where the potential trouble lies with Pickering is that during his term in office, not only was he receiving campaign funding from Cellular South, but Creekmore-Byrd was using his romantic affair as leverage via the power and influence of Pickering’s office and position.

Pickering’s actions in Congress make his motives clearer in hindsight. In 2007 he extended a favorable invitation to Cellular South President Victor Meena to testify before the House Telecommunications Subcommittee. “Subsequently,” The Daily Beast reported, “the congressman reaped thousands of dollars in donations from numerous Cellular South executives.”

The Associated Press added that the FCC and Congress were considering placing a cap on funds paid to carriers out of the Universal Service Fund, adding, “There is considerable opposition among members of Congress, including Stevens and Pickering, and rural wireless carriers.”

The Universal Service Fund is a program designed by the FCC to collect fees from telecom companies for distribution to small rural carriers like Cellular South in order to provide service to underserved areas. The AP noted that Cellular South is the “top recipient of cash” in Mississippi, and that Pickering was a company “favorite.”

Strange bedfellows

Evidence suggests that while Congressman Pickering was working closely with Cellular South, he was also maintaining other eyebrow-raising relationships.

Soon after he agreed to cosponsor Rep. Markey’s Internet Freedom Preservation Act, Pickering aligned himself with Free Press, the so-called “media reform” organization founded by self-proclaimed Marxist-Socialist Robert McChesney. Pickering joined with the organization for various net-neutrality promotions and conference calls.

Later, Free Press would mention Cellular South very favorably in “Reply Comments” to the FCC covering mobile competition. And an October 2009 Free Press white paper on network investment also cast Cellular South in a remarkably favorable light.

Merger talk

Until recently, Pickering’s lucrative lobbying windfalls at Capital Resources — including more than $550,000 from Cellular South and Cbeyond — have eluded significant public scrutiny. But the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger has brought the former congressman back into the limelight.

Under the guise of capitalist principles, Pickering has suddenly begun issuing warning after stern warning of a supposed telecom monopoly that looms in the merger. But he has never disclosed his former dealings with merger opponent Cellular South (via Capital Resources), and he was ultimately forced to declare his financial stake in COMPTEL’s anti-merger interests. (In April The Hill’s coverage noted that COMPTEL “came out strong against the merger.”)

One of Pickering’s dire prophecies came in a RealClearPolitics opinion piece. In May, Betsy Rothstein of FishBowlDC wrote that she “contacted RCP to find out why they failed to disclose Pickering’s role as a telecom lobbyist and to see if they thought their readers deserved to know when a contributor had been paid to take a position.” Rothstein later reported that RCP Washington Editor Carl Cannon edited the piece to note that Pickering currently represents COMPTEL, but that there was no mention of him lobbying for Capitol Resources LLC on behalf of small telecoms like that of Cellular South in the past.

The Internet Innovation Alliance, which advocates in favor of the pending merger, sees things differently. “Many consumers in rural California, Oklahoma, Mississippi and West Virginia, among other regions of the country, currently have no or limited access to mobile broadband service,” spokesman Robert Kenny told The Daily Caller. “The merger will help bring this 21st Century digital technology to those consumers in rural America who otherwise would not have access.”

When reached for comment, Pickering told The Daily Caller that Cellular South has not been represented by Capital Resources since December of 2010 and that he has not had dealings with the company since that time. He noted that Capital Resources fully discloses all of its clients, and said Roll Call and RCP simply did not ask. As soon as the publishers inquired, he said, the relationship with COMPTEL was added to the article.

Pickering also emphatically denied having a partnership with Free Press, stating: “I would not say that I have worked for or with Free Press. I appeared on several telecom panels due to the nature of my work as did other conservative Republicans.”

The former Congressman characterizes himself as holding an Adam Smith free-market ideology that opposes monopolies, duopolies, and oligopolies — which he envisions will be created with a successful AT&T/T-Mobile merger. Additionally, he clarified that he is not in favor of across the board Open Internet regulation, but rather supported the Internet Freedom Preservation Act because it would handle violations on a case-by-case basis.

Free Press ignored TheDC’s requests for comment. Cellular South and AT&T were reached for comment but failed to respond prior to publishing. Sprint, a major opponent to the merger, falls under the COMPTEL umbrella.

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Nick R. Brown